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GeoTech Cues January 12, 2021

Worries about AI externalities

By Mathew Burrows and Julian Mueller-Kaler

There is no doubt that emerging technologies have gained significant importance over the last couple of years, but a sense of caution is required when it comes to the hype surrounding AI. Technologies have so far remained a tool and their applications won’t be solving all of humanity’s problems anytime soon. Of course, underestimating the tech revolution is not the right way forward either, as speakers at roundtables in China suggested that AI applications will have very similar effects to the internet— disrupting societies on the one hand, but creating huge markets on the other. Mitigating risks along with efforts to exploit opportunities will be the challenge of the coming decades because it is only a question of time until social tensions arise. The Chinese government already creates around 16 million jobs annually—many of them without commercial purpose. In order to keep the social peace, that number will likely have to grow as unskilled labor becomes automated.

Irrespective of social externalities, the greater accessibility of big data, which is needed to train smart algorithms, puts China at an important advantage. In the West, the publics’ desire for privacy, democratic accountability, and a clear differentiation between the private and public sectors hamper the availability of big data for tech entrepreneurs. Due to the lack of infrastructure and data regulation in India, for example, software engineers have to train their algorithms with European or American data sets, making it rather difficult to adapt AI applications to local conditions. Health experts at the India roundtable also talked about the lack of financial incentives for AI development and use in their sector. In advanced economies, market conditions, such as the high cost of labor, have been a spur to develop automated systems using AI. In developing countries where labor is cheap and widely available, the same incentives don’t apply and lead to different effects. Without the market pull, Indian state authorities need to find ways to boost AI in order to improve services and ensure India’s ability to plug its extensive software industry into the global economy.

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The GeoTech Center champions positive paths forward that societies can pursue to ensure new technologies and data empower people, prosperity, and peace.